“I’m just terrified. I’m scared of [failure]. I don’t wanna show that to the people; I don’t wanna show the people that I’m weak. It’s kind of related with pride. Because we Arabian people, we got our own pride and our own honor. And you never understand that.”
—Muthana Mohmed speaking to filmmaker Nina Davenport
OPERATION FILMMAKER tells the story of how well-intentioned American filmmakers bend over backwards to help an aspiring film student in war-torn Iraq achieve his dream of working on a real Hollywood movie. But nothing goes as planned.
One year after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, MTV aired a documentary about Muthana Mohmed, a 25-year-old film student from Baghdad. Muthana had a winning smile and indomitable spirit, but his film school had been bombed to pieces and entirely destroyed. By chance, American actor Liev Schreiber saw the MTV piece while preparing to direct his first feature film. Feeling guilty for having so much opportunity while Muthana had none, Schreiber invited the young Iraqi to join the production of the Holocaust-themed movie, Everything is Illuminated, to be filmed in the Czech Republic. It seemed like a dream come true—a story of bridging cultures—so documentary director Nina Davenport went along to film it.
Soon after Muthana arrives in Prague, the contrasts between his life experience and everyone else’s become very apparent. At night he watches television images of the escalating violence in Baghdad; by day he listens as crew members discuss the importance of editing a gag reel. When Muthana declares his love for George Bush, the liberal Hollywood producers are taken aback.
Living away from his family for the first time, Muthana isn’t accustomed to taking care of himself. Nor does he want to fulfill his assigned duties on the film set. He has difficulty managing important tasks like renewing his visa or comprehending the expectations of his fellow workers on a high-stress film production.
As the tension between Muthana and the producers grows, he alternately rebels against his benefactors and plays the injured party. He claims he cannot return to Baghdad because his work with Jewish producers on a film that supports “the Jewish theory” of the Holocaust will put his life in danger.
Tired of watching the opportunity they’ve afforded Muthana go to waste, his patrons finally reach the end of their patience and their charity.
The challenge is that no one has a good exit strategy. Davenport, who is now heavily invested in Muthana’s odyssey in the West, finds that what was supposed to be a month-long shoot has morphed into a year and a half and hundreds of dollars out of her own pocket to float Muthana, who never tires of asking her for more.
Davenport traces the parallels between George W. Bush’s good intentions in trying to rescue the Iraqi people from the clutches of Saddam Hussein and the well-meaning Hollywood producers who rescued Muthana from the rubble of Baghdad. And the longer she hangs around filming him, waiting to capture a happy ending, the more her personal costs mount.
Davenport tells this story, full of remarkable twists and turns, with a sharp eye for humor and surreal juxtapositions. The intentions of all the players come under scrutiny, including documentary makers who often wind up in complicated, unpredictable relationships with their subjects.
Davenport keeps everyone’s humanity in focus—their dreams and better inclinations—even as they blunder and grossly misunderstand each other. Are there lessons to be learned? The unintended consequences are too messy and situational to easily say. But in this mix of tragedy and farce, Davenport captures a folly of our times.
Muthana Mohmed received five years asylum in the United Kingdom and is still living in London trying to make films.
Liev Schreiber’s film, Everything is Illuminated, was released to critical acclaim in 2005 by Warner Independent Pictures and garnered a number of awards for the first-time director.
The Universal Pictures science fiction/horror film, Doom, starring The Rock, opened in late 2005 in the United States and the United Kingdom. (The Rock is also known as actor Dwayne Johnson and is the man who paid for Muthana’s tuition at the London Film Academy.)
Documentary filmmaker Nina Davenport is living in New York City and is expecting her first child in December 2008.